Dark Regions Press
Trade Paper, 97 pages, $12.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Gene O’Neill’s Rusting Chickens is a very short book. And disclosing too much about the narrative would detract from reading pleasure. Therefore, it’s best to be brief, and only reveal what is salient to the tale, avoiding any plot disclosures that would spoil the reading. In the course of doing so, it will hopefully become apparent that the author has succinctly and expertly crafted a nifty little horror story.
The bare bones of the novella primarily consist of the perceptions of the protagonist. Rob McKenna has returned stateside from a secret black ops mission. The Marine is severely hurt during the dangerous assignment; one of the consequences is traumatic brain injury. Post surgery, in which a metal plate was implanted to protect the frontal lobes, Rob is mega-medicated and confused. Back at home in Northern California, he looks out at the rusting chicken sculptures in his yard with bewilderment: The sculptures have not only moved in location, but also seem altered in posture. Later, a cat made of the same metal material abruptly appears and stalks the flock.
McKenna assumes this is the work of his wife; there is an art workshop in their garage. When he queries her about the animal figures, she reminds him that they are modeled on animals they once had; chickens they had raised, a cat they inherited, all now gone. Rob tries to sort out the muddled recollections and make sense of distortions of reality: “It seems that living animals are disappearing around here, just as metal sculptures of these animals are appearing. The latter appearances apparently causing the former disappearances. And all memories of the living animals are somehow wiped completely from my mind after the sculptures appear. But these aren’t just your everyday sculptures, either. Oh, no, indeed. For they’ve absorbed something vital I think, maybe the modeled real animal’s living spirit. So they can indeed move about, but rather surreptitiously -despite being constructed of rigid steel.”
In addition to the first person narration by Rob, there are omniscient narrator accounts. Most of the latter deal with what happened during the mission, but other descriptions involve the rehabilitation necessary for the protagonist’s return to the Napa residence. His psychological prognosis is problematic; he’s made astounding strides through occupational therapy, but remains hostile and paranoid. Mental and metallic aberrations seize his psyche, dominating his world view.
Rusting Chickens can be interpreted as an allegory, a nightmarish fantasy, a weird tale with social gravitas, or all three. Gene O’Neill’s artistic ambiguity presents lots of possibilities.